Military to Debut Virtual School

A new online curriculum is in the works to ease school transitions for itinerant members' children.

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When new assignments force members of the armed forces to move, it often means children need to switch schools. In some military families, children change schools multiple times during the course of their academic lives. The Department of Defense says that the disruptions can produce setbacks in students' schooling, but department officials are working to fix that: They're developing the military's first online virtual high school, to be open in time for the 2010-2011 school year.

The online curriculum is being developed in collaboration with experts at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas under a $6.2 million contract from the Department of Defense Education Activity program. The coursework is meant not to replace or compete with face-to-face schools but to supplement them.

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DoDEA, which is responsible for the education of military members' children, has offered distance-learning programs since the early 1980s. Until now, the majority of distance-learning courses offered by the agency have been classes to supplement the core curriculum, such as Advanced Placement courses. The new virtual school is a bit different: It's meant to offer a complete curriculum of courses necessary to graduate from high school.

If a student switches schools midsemester and a certain course is not available at the new school, the student could pick up where he or she left off through a virtual class that is fully compatible with the regular class's subject material. Agency officials also say that the virtual high school will provide additional resources to fill gaps when face-to-face courses are not offered at a traditional school and increase flexibility in scheduling.

"It can be frustrating when students move from one place to another, and if the class requirements change, that can push a student back in terms of high school graduation timelines," says Patricia Riley, chief of the new school and of DoDEA's distance-learning initiatives.

The online school will be available worldwide, but not all high school-aged children in military families will be allowed to enroll in its courses. Only students who meet certain requirements to attend DoDEA schools—such as being dependent children of service members on overseas orders or of Defense Department contractors—will be eligible. There are currently 1.2 million school-age children in military families, and approximately 85,000 of them attend DoDEA schools, which are funded by the Defense Department and are mostly located overseas.

Most eligible students will be expected to obtain their high school diplomas from a brick-and-mortar campus, but officials say the virtual school can serve students in remote locations in other countries who do not have access to a regular school. If parents don't have Internet access at home, they will be able to work with their local military unit to find access at another location, officials say.

The online curriculum is based on U.S. state learning standards and aligned with the coursework of a typical American high school. Courses will be taught by DoDEA teachers, and many instructors will have either an orientation toward or experience with distance-learning technologies, Riley says. The agency will run training sessions on teaching online, and UNLV also will provide professional development.

"One of the requirements is that these should be very rigorous courses," says Greg Levitt, the subject-matter expert at UNLV who is heading the project to develop 33 new online courses in core subjects. "This should be the equivalent of, or better than, a face-to-face class."

To achieve that equivalency, synchronous communications tools such as Web conferencing will be used. That will allow a teacher to do such things as bring students together to share lab data for a science class or hold a peer review workshop for an English class.

"The classes will be written in a way that's a little different than a textbook," says Levitt, with "more active involvement from the student" and elements such as video and animation.